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NAB - We must focus on how we support rural and regional Australia

  • By: "Prime" Ag News
  • Jul 24, 2018

NAB CEO Andrew Thorburn speech to customers, staff and community leaders at the International Hotel in Wagga Wagga.

WELCOME & ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Hello, everyone, it’s great to be here in Wagga tonight – with NAB customers, members of the community and community leaders.

Welcome also to our local team – 40 people who are dedicated to our customers and the people of this region.

We have a long and proud local history in Wagga, going back to 1863 when The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, which later merged with the National Bank of Australasia to become NAB, opened a branch in Kincaid Street.

Today, 155 years on, I was proud to spend the day visiting local customers, in a number of industries – from farming, to grain storage and car sales.

At NAB, our stated purpose is to back the bold who move Australia forward. And it was those very people I met today – our customers doing bold things to grow this community and our country.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA
Rural and regional Australia is central to our cultural and economic history. Its people helped build the foundations of Australia.

It’s where our culture – of hard work, of having a go and of mateship – was born.

Rural and regional Australia – places like Wagga, and towns I have visited today like Marrar and Junee – is also central to our future.

About thirty per cent of Australia’s GDP comes from regional areas. That’s about $500 billion per year.

Australian agricultural industries alone are worth around $60 billion, and power 1.6 million jobs.

More than 300,000 men and women work in farming, growing world-class produce enjoyed across the country and exported around the world.

Rural and regional Australia is important to NAB too:
   * It represents 40 per cent of our business customer base;
   * In the three years to March 2018, the total agri market grew $6.23 billion. Of that, NAB grew agri business lending balances by $3.70 billion – or 59% of the net growth in total agri lending in that period;
   * 1 in 3 farmers chooses to bank with NAB, making us the biggest agri bank – a privilege we do not take lightly;
   * Each year we welcome 50 new agri bankers to NAB – half of whom are women – as part of our 2019 graduate intake. And in total, 2000 of our people work in regional Australia, many of them from the land themselves;
   * And almost half of our branches and banking centres are regional – the highest proportion of any major bank.

Our Board and Executive teams are determined to get out to hear, first-hand from these customers and bankers, what we can do better.

We’ve visited Mildura, Toowoomba, Alice Springs, Roma, Port Lincoln, Bunbury, Dubbo, Townsville, Warrnambool – of course Wagga – and places in-between.

The success of our business is linked to the success of all of these places – and to your success.

NAB’s deep roots in regional Australia go right back to our founding purpose, which was outlined in our June 1858 prospectus, to:

‘…render all possible accommodation and facilities to the merchant trader, manufacturer, settler, agriculturist, and miner as well as to any other of the industrial classes.’

Tonight I return to those words and reaffirm our commitment to be true to them.

AGRI CLIENTS ARE IMPORTANT TO US – MANY AFFECTED BY DROUGHT
Rural challenges are real, and we need to determine how to support these areas better.

This is a message we’ve heard loud and clear from farmers and rural customers right across the nation – many of whom have been affected by drought conditions.

The Royal Commission and other inquiries reveal that in some cases we have lost touch.

And the reduction of bank branches in rural and regional areas is difficult for all. I read letters from customers about this emotive topic every week.

And every decision to close a branch is indeed difficult. I feel it deeply.

Recently we closed the doors of our Casterton branch in Western Victoria – a branch my great grandfather, WH Stevenson, managed. WH served the National Bank for 48 years, and I sometimes wonder what he would think of how the banks have treated regional Australia in recent times.

While we will maintain a focus on bigger population centres, like capital cities that provide growth, we also need to help create opportunities outside those areas.

We must focus on how we support rural and regional Australia. And tonight I want to put a new stake in the ground.

We, at NAB, are determined to be THE bank for rural and regional Australia.

HELPING COMMUNITIES CHANGE AND GROW
We acknowledge the inevitable change that will continue to occur in our rural and regional communities. Ultimately though, we want to help and we want to support growth.

So, we are asking ourselves the question – how do we serve better, and what do we need to do differently to achieve that?

As part of this, today we are making three announcements.

Firstly, that we will proactively offer our agri customers the financial benefit of being able to offset their Farm Management Deposit (FMD) against their agricultural lending.

FMDs play an important part in supporting farmers to manage and grow through fluctuating commodity prices and variable seasonal conditions. This offset will take the form of a discount to their lending interest rate.

This enables us to quickly respond to issues raised at the recent Government drought roundtable, where we were challenged to see what prompt action we could take.

We are writing to all our customers holding an FMD to advise them of this, and encourage them to contact us to let us know which loan to offset the deposit against.

Further, NAB also supports FMDs to be allowed as security for lending. Whilst this has some challenges, including legislative change, it would give farmers access to additional security as capital to lend against.

We have today spoken to Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud on both these points, and we thank him for his advocacy and commitment to the rural sector.

Secondly, we will do more for those agri customers affected by drought. Such customers go through particular challenges and may fall into arrears and be unable to make their loan repayments. We want to help at this time, not make it more difficult.

So, we will now not charge a higher default interest rate if this does occur. This matter came up in a recent Royal Commission case, and we have decided that change needs to occur.

In addition, today we are making two donations to the Country Women’s Associations of New South Wales and Queensland, both to the value of $50,000. These donations will go to their drought relief funds which directly help farming families. We also will match donations of up to a further $50,000 each.

Third, as communities in rural and regional Australia change, we wish to find better ways to support them, and to help them grow. Whilst we do a lot of things now, given the challenges, we need to ensure that these are the right things, and done in the best way.

This will include how we bring face-to-face banking services to them in a sustainable way – a part of which will be looking at the future of branches in remote areas. Perhaps there is more we can do to sustain those services, in conjunction with the community, such as partnerships and alliances. Or perhaps we need to consider changes to how we leave towns, if there is no alternative.

But this is not just about branches, this is about taking a wide view on what more we can do to assist our rural and regional communities to thrive in the future – and could include ag tech, video conferencing, and innovation more generally.

We have a lot of networks and communication processes in place now in dealing with these matters, and they work well.

But we need to do more. I am pleased to announce that over the next few months, members of our senior team and I will visit towns and communities across the country to hear directly from people on their views.

As part of this, we are pleased to have the help of two respected community figures:
   * John Anderson is a 6th generation farmer and former Deputy Prime Minister who was awarded Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011 for his support of rural and regional communities, after serving 19 years in Australian Parliament. John is down to earth, committed to listening, and connected with country people;
   * Chris Sarra is a highly respected community figure and education specialist based in Queensland who has received international acclaim for his work in pursing better outcomes for indigenous communities. Chris is thoughtful and deeply experienced in rural and regional Australia.

Both John and Chris will help challenge us on these questions. They will help us listen better, and consider wider views.

This is an exciting opportunity to work with some big people on a big question. After these visits, I will report back, in a manner similar to this, to outline what we have heard, and what we will do, including what we will do differently.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t, from time to time, have to make difficult decisions.

But it does mean we will improve our consultation, improve our understanding of the trade-offs, improve our understanding of the knock-on effects on communities; and how we can do a better job.

It has been wonderful to be here in the Riverina and to be out with our clients. It reminds me of why I do what I do, and why our bank exists: to back people – bold people – who move Australia forward.

We have done this for 160 years, and now we need to challenge ourselves to be better for our customers, and in particular, for rural and regional Australia, who deserve the very best of our ideas and solutions.

This is partly because of our respect for their contribution to our nation, and partly because they have potential, and economic growth is there for the taking.

I am pleased with the decisions we have announced today, and am very much looking forward to our work over the next few months to explore these bigger questions, and how we can help.

Thank you for your time tonight.

Picture - Andrew Thorburn